Monday, August 30, 2010

Getting Over a Dud, or Don't Judge a Book By Its Author

Free of charge, let me provide a short bit of advice regarding a lesson I've learned as a reader: While you're busy making sure you're not judging books by their covers, also do your best to refrain from judging books by their authors. Wait, what? That seems counter-intuitive, right? How could you not? Because that name splashed across a cover is probably one of (if not THE) highest priorities in selection criteria, who wrote the thing will always influence whether you read a book, won't it?

Sure, it will. I'm not naïve. But the seedy underside of that vacuum-writer-judgment is that one reading experience can often determine your future with a writer. Let's be honest, we've all had reading experiences where we've been so put off by a book, we vow never to read that writer again. It happens all the time, and we rationalize it thusly: "There are just too many books to waste time on an author I didn't like when I tried him/her the first time" or "his/her writing style didn't appeal to me, so I'll never read him/her again."

I would argue, however, that keeping an open mind and giving second and third chances may lead you to some of your more rewarding reading experiences.

We all know that any writer, even the best, or your most favorite writers, like John Irving (The Fourth Hand, Until I Find You) and Zadie Smith (The Autograph Man), are capable of spectacular duds. The key is to not let the frustration of the time you wasted with those duds, or maybe not a dud but a book that just didn't agree with you, color your decision too much of whether to try the author's next book. Sure, that's easier said than done, I know.

But here's why I bring this up now: I read Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows a few years ago. By all rights, I should've loved it — a literary mystery about a lost Shakespeare play written by a novelist famous for his cross-genre success.  I was bored to tears. I wrote after finishing it, "It's always a roll of the dice when I try these 'literary thrillers' and this one crapped out." But then I read about Gruber's new novel — The Good Son, an international thriller about a kidnapping in Pakistan in terrorists with nuclear weapons. It sounded like a literary version of a Vince Flynn novel, so given my weakness for international thrillers, I was intrigued. It took several weeks of internal coaxing, but I managed to overcome my Gruber Trepidation, and I picked it up. You know what? I'm about halfway through it, and I'm really, really diggin' it.

By way of further example, I'd absolutely despised everything I'd ever read of Cormac McCarthy, including the famed Blood Meridian and his Border Trilogy. But, I read The Roadtwo years ago, only because it was short, it had won the Pulitzer, and it sounded a lot different than McCarthy's other work. Wow, what a reading experience! That novel is now in my Top 10 of all time. Thank goodness I didn't give up on good 'ole Cormac!  

I could cite many other examples, both positive and negative. Of course, yeah, this open-mindedness sometimes backfires — for instance, I loved Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, and so I picked up his newest novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, the day it came out. It made me kinda sleepy. But in all reality, the positive times far outnumber the negatives, in my experience — especially when you're second-chancing writers with great range, like Gruber. And the incomparable feeling of being surprised by how much I liked a book I took a big risk with is one of my favorite things about being a reader! 

What about you? Any anecdotes about a novelist to whom you gave a second or third chance, and are thrilled you did?


  1. Michael Chabon. Totally not a fan of Gentlemen of the Road, but 103% thankful that I got over that to read Kavalier and Clay, which is one of my favorites.

    Then there are the authors that splash in out-of-genre novels, like Patterson with his Christmas book or Danielle Steel with Granny Dan. None of which I've read, but they probably can't be judged with the same mentality used when considering the author within his/her given genre.

  2. i'm pretty guilty of this. except i haven't ever overcome it enough to be proved wrong. i never finished the first Will Self i read, or the first Martin Amis, so i've never picked up another.

    also -- The Road was the first Cormac i read, and i've bought the first in the Borders Trilogy to read soon. interesting that you loved one and not the other -- hope i enjoy All The Pretty Horses despite that...

  3. @Kerry - Oh, Chabon's a good one. I bet lots of people gave up on him after some of his more, um, eclectic novels. I loved Kavalier and Clay, too - but that was the first of his I'd read (though I've seen the movie Wonder Boys about 653 times).

    @Ben - I should probably take my own advice regarding Martin Amis. I, too, hated the only thing I read by him - House of Meetings. Never tried Will Self, but he's always been on my radar. Good luck with Cormac.

  4. Good point I have had that. I would call them one hit wonders... I mean I have had books that I have loved by certain authors and then I read the author again and well.... lightning did not strike twice for me.

  5. I can't think of any authors that haven't thrilled me or bored me every time. Except Christopher Moore. I've read 2 of his books, one I am in love with still, over a year later, and the other I could have taken or left...but then I tried a third and couldn't get past 20 pages. It just didn't do it for me. I feel the same thing will happen with my love for Edith Wharton. I love Ethan Frome, but her other books are written in a much different setting, one I'm normally not engaged in. So I'll try them, but I don't have pedestal like expectations that I'll love them.

    This is a wonderful post by the way! Seriously it was the most engaging post I've read all evening. Love it.

  6. Hmm.. well, for me, it's more of the opposite. I actually loved an author the first time I read a book of hers (Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger) but ended up hating her second -- Her Fearful Symmetry.

  7. At the shallow end of the pool, I had given up on Jane Green and Sophie Kinsella after reading some of their novels, but their most recent ones - Promises to Keep and Twenties Girl, respectively - were really good. I'm hoping the same will happen with Jennifer Weiner -- I've loved all of her books, but her last one was a disappointment.

  8. I'll have to watch for The Good Son; I actually enjoyed The Book of Air and Shadows (but my review does say that I just rolled with the questions and coincidences - I don't remember anymore). I was astonished and impressed with No Country for Old Men and liked The Road almost as much. So far, of the authors that I'm starting to follow, I'm only disappointed with Kazuo Ishiguro - I only loved 1 of 3 books.

  9. I was half-way through the article and thought, "Yeah, I hated McCarthy after The Road but then I read Blood Meridian and loved him." Oh, the irony. Is that irony? Anyway, good post. Maybe I will read some more Zadie Smith.

  10. @Sheila - So you're saying that giving an author a second chance hasn't worked for you? Any examples?

    @Sharyla - Hey, thanks for the kind words. I've ever read Christopher Moore's Lamb, and loved it - and I'm almost afraid to read anything else by him because I don't want to not like it as much as Lamb. ;) That's an idea that probably needs to be explored more too - when reading a new author, should you start with what's widely considered his/her best book, or should you work your way up? Hmmm....

    @Jillian - Yeah, I think a lot of folks had that experience. Maybe she'll be like Zadie Smith's sequence: Brilliant, Dud, Brilliant.

    @Suzanne - Well, I'm not sure I'm qualified to comment on Sophie Kinsella or Jennifer Weiner. ;)

    @Care - I ended up seeing the movie for No Country For Old Men before I could convince myself to pick up the book - and it was so freakin' good, I mentally wrote off the necessity for reading the book. I've only read one Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go - and I liked it, but didn't love it. Which one did you like?

    @Ken - No, irony is a free ride when you've already paid. Or something.

  11. I have to admit I'm so not an author-focused person that I've never really thought about it. I tend to read the book based on the plot and rarely worry about the author.

  12. Chabon and Moore, yes. Also Barbara Kingsolver--some of her novels are preachy, and I hate that, but then she'll write another good one. Her essays are frequently good, and her non-fiction. China Mieville, too--his books are so different from each other.

  13. I agree with your take on The Road. It's one of my all time favorites too.